Look … lemme level with you: My life’s not that fucking interesting. I write a lot about it, candidly, because those are the pieces that do the best numbers. I prefer to write about sports, science and music. But, here I am, back behind a keyboard, dipping back into the well that’s served me well for well over a year now. But not because it’s interesting. And I’m going to spend the rest of this arduous slog of an essay proving it, to prove a larger point.
So let me start with this mangled-ass thought: John Gorman, the writer, is not John Gorman. John Gorman, the writer, is the narrator of John Gorman’s life story. He’s the stenographer. He’s taking sensory notes, accumulating data, deriving insights, and spilling them in the context of widescreen essays that unearth the underlying pathologies of the human condition. That’s the narrator’s job. He’s the breadwinner of the family. And although he shares a name and body with the actual John Gorman, they are not the same and never could be. I write about things that are too raw, too personal and have the potential to inflame people close to me. If I were sensitive to criticism — especially self-criticism — I could not do this.
I could not write about myself if I did not have a “buffer zone.” I wouldn’t call the narrator the alter-ego, because he only exists in writing. On paper. Completely detached. Able to think clearly. Capable of harnessing competing thoughts, finding their common thread, and spitting back something close to capital-T truth. That would not be possible if I — me, the real John Gorman — just sat at a keyboard and bled. So, let’s hold this first idea in my head: If you’re reading my writing, know that it’s been filtered and distilled from the way I actually experienced something — I’ve re-framed and assigned meaning and narrative retroactively to events that as they happen don’t make much sense. Perhaps you’ve felt this way in your life, too, at some point? That things feel disconnected and incongruent? That’s why we tell ourselves stories. They help us make sense of the senseless, and provide shading and context to events that mostly feel like random acts of violence or kindness. It is in that spirit that I tell you this: How we tell our stories matter. Here’s two stories to illustrate that point.
A preternaturally smart kid was born in a Northeast suburb, the grandson of a local millionaire on one side of the family, and a police chief on the other. The son of an engineer. As a child, his parents showered him with love, and he was given all the books and magazines his heart desired, and developed a taste for broadcast journalism. He was an all-state drummer in New York, a geography bee champion, a letterer in three high school sports, and went to prom with his high school sweetheart and first love.
He got into Syracuse University to study what he dreamed of studying, then lost interest — in school, in his career, in his girlfriend, in life — he started smoking pot, drinking tequila, and left his wholesome girlfriend for an alluring car crash of a human who one day left him in the same fashion. He attempted to transfer to the University of North Carolina, but his parents didn’t trust him to live on his own. He was cornered into trying the University at Buffalo, because it was “close to home.” He resented this. He worked as a server and bartender through college, and he graduated with two degrees, and as the only person who was on both academic probation and the Dean’s List. He got into trouble with the law and was arrested seven times.
Then he left school, started doing cocaine, fell for a new woman, stopped doing cocaine, coasted until finding a job as a survey taker and moving up the ladder to database analyst. In yet another failed attempt to move to North Carolina, he settled for a telecommuting job, while his high school sweetheart returned to the picture briefly. After coasting in Buffalo for another two years, he sold off all his things and moved to Austin, Texas, where he met a lovely woman who lived just 75 miles down the road.
He continued coasting, sinking into a dark depression, eventually losing his job and being evicted from his home. He scored a job at [LARGE GLOBAL TECHNOLOGY COMPANY] writing pop-up banner ads, got a new place to live, paid off all his debt and started running long distances.
He split with his girlfriend to more fully concentrate on making a life for himself in his new city, and managed to get promoted a bunch of times at his day-job, found a new boo, started playing music for money, started writing sports on the side, eventually ending up at SI, before a couple stupid tweets napalmed that career, and forced him off social media, out of sports journalism, and retreating to writing existentialist diatribes at Medium.
Then he started drinking up a storm, chain-smoking his lungs into oblivion, raging at the dying of the light. It would take years to identify, unlearn and obliterate all his unhealthy coping mechanisms. He did most of that in writing, in plain view. It became popular.
Somehow, that all worked. Even after his last love left without saying goodbye, and although he hasn’t found love since, he managed to become a globally known writer, a world traveler, and a 12x half marathon runner. He even helped ghostwrite policy and copy for prominent politicians, while serving on the board of a non-profit charter preschool and hosting a podcast with his two best friends … friends from long ago he gets to see every year.
The prodigal son came through. He may have done everything he could to try and screw things up, but he came out clean in the wash. Straight white dude encounters self-made adversity, fights his own demons, sorta wins, and ends up about where he should be … although he feels pretty lonely most of the time.
A child with an IgG immunodeficiency that causes his lungs to eat themselves forever is born in a Rust Belt town. The grandson of immigrants. His dad worked overnights in a tire factory and his mom was a full-time mom. Feeling weird and closet ashamed of his preternatural intelligence, he retreats to a world of books and magazines, and eventually a fantasy world where he re-imagines himself as a writer, a musician and an athlete. He moves three times in between ages 5 and 10, and never feels like he belongs anywhere.
His mother and father fought every night, with his mother landing most of the body blows. Despite regularly falling asleep in class, and living in a toxic home environment for years, he manages to be the only one of the three children to graduate with honors, the first person on either side of the family to go to college and graduate in four (and a half) years right out of high school.
After becoming jaded by his chosen field of broadcast journalism, he worked his way through school as both a full-time student and full-time server/bartender. His school effort was scattershot at best, but he managed to graduate with around a 3.0.
He got into trouble with the law and was arrested seven times. After years of wandering around in the darkness doing whatever jobs paid, he decides his real passions are making music and writing.
He starts writing songs, writing sports columns, and playing music in bars. Ultimately, he decides Austin would be a better place to try and forge a better life for himself, and he sells off all his shit, and drives in a Hyundai Sonata with nothing but his cat and whatever else would fit, to start anew.
It did not go well at first. Financial predicaments and a dire employment situation, plus some petty dealings with the people who held his 401K, ended up forcing him out onto the street. He lived in a rental Jeep at a Wal-Mart parking lot, while starting a job writing pop-up banner ads for a global tech giant.
He scrapped and saved, and even started running — which doctors told him would be impossible. He soon found himself a self-made local musician, a self-made sportswriter, a self-made branding consultant, and on the road to financial recovery. From $56K in debt to $66K in net worth in just six years.
He fell in love with a variety of fantastic women — including an on-again, off-again 11-year epic romance that would be its own story one day — and a 17-month epic that already is and jump-started his career as an essayist. He overcame alcohol addiction, quit smoking, and genuinely turned his life around in multiple ways, and at multiple times.
He left his rust belt town, conquered his demons, managed to travel the world, to grow his brand, to out-earn his parents and siblings combined, and has overcome his lungs to run 12 half-marathons and a full marathon. His writing now appears in airports around the world, in political platforms in the halls of congress, and is quoted all over the internet.
The comeback kid always has another round in him. He explored. He hustled. And when one door closed, another opened. He is lucky. He is privileged. He is grateful. And yet he overcame the odds, anyway. He was born an invalid, into no money, into a broken home, in a rust belt town. And yet, as a master of reinvention, became the person he now most assuredly is.
I don’t need to tell you those are the same story, and they’re both about me. But what if I were to ask you — which story is more true? The answer is, of course, neither. Both stories are equally true.
The first story is of an emotionally unstable, mediocre white guy who steps on every rake he’s been given, and yet still Mr. Magoo’s his way to a few narrow definitions of personal success.
The second story is that of an earnest, yet restless, soul who took what life threw at him — including what he threw at himself — and spun straw into gold, far exceeding his wildest expectations.
The second tale is, of course, more compelling. Everyone loves a comeback story. Everyone loves an underdog story. Everyone loves it when the good guy wins. The purpose of this thought exercise, and essay, however, is not to tell you that you should tell your story in a way that inspires you. (Though you should.) The purpose of this thought exercise, and essay, is far deeper and yet far more pointed than that.
When we talk about how we tell our stories, we’re quite quick to label ourselves as the heroes. This invites with it a certain amount of myopia. Not to put too blunt an edge to it, but Donald Trump must surely view himself as the hero of his own story. Clearly, people’s perception of him as a villain in theirs doesn’t seem to be getting through to him. So there is a danger to seeing yourself purely as the protagonist. And that danger is quite real. So, perhaps we’re not the heroes of our stories?
Well, surely we can’t be the villains of our own stories, right? There’s two major downfalls to this line of thinking. One: a villain, by nature, only serves to be redeemed or defeated, in service of a larger good. And while I think larger goods are important, I don’t necessarily think we should see ourselves entirely as redemption tales or born losers. It strips us of our agency and puts too much weight on the past as prologue. Two: If you see yourself as the villain of your own story, you’ll do damn near anything to short-circuit your progress toward any goal that falls within the intersection of good, healthy or desired. After all, why should the bad guys win? Why should they enjoy the fruits of their labor? Or, to put it more viscerally: why should you? Why should I?
The nihilists and existentialists, of course, would ask those questions pointedly and repeatedly: Why should you get what you want? Why should you get what you deserve? Above others, or at the expense of others? And those are questions I ask of myself a lot. Am I a hero? Am I a villain? Am I worthy? The stories — the stenography, the data collection, the insights — they’re all attempts to answer those questions.
This frustrates the conscious community. You know them — the ones who say “you have to love yourself first.” To which, of course, I would say, “wait wait wait wait just a motherfucking minute. How do I know that’s a good idea? I’m a pretty self-aware guy, and even I can’t say if I’m on the right side of the fence when it comes to if I’m deserving of love.”
Their rebuttal, one would assume, would dictate that all villains become villains because they didn’t receive the love they deserved at the time they deserved it. And, again, not to use too obvious of an example here, but isn’t that kind of what we’re seeing with Trump and men of his ilk? People who didn’t receive the love they deserved, when they deserved it, internalized a pathological mission to “make” people love them, and then executed on it in ways that are harmful to others and to humanity in general? Villains are always trying to the compensate for the love they never felt they received. Should we cast ourselves as the villains in this story, we abdicate our own ability to love ourselves in any healthy and meaningful way.
So if we’re not the hero of our own story, because that would be myopic and reductionist, nor the villain of our own story, because that would be self-defeating and self-fulfilling, then who are we? That brings us back to the narrator. The narrator witnesses the events, reports them, records them, arranges them into context, remembers them, recycles them, attaches meaning to them. And you know who listens to the narrator? Well, you. Your innermost being — neither hero, nor villain — merely your essence. The most elemental, ethereal part of you.
Storytellers create heroes and villains with their own preconceived biases, their own projections, their own perspectives. Humans are far deeper than fundamentally good or evil, as entities to be fought for or against. Humans are complex, problematic, and often times just making shit up as they go, making their own split-second decisions aligned with their own preconceived biases, projections and perspectives. Your essence does that. The pre-hero, pre-villain version of you. Storytellers sort out what it means as it happens and often long after.
So, rather than think of ourselves as either the hero or villain of our stories, perhaps it is more accurate, then, to think of ourselves as an innermost essence, coupled with a narrator — a documentary team assigned to follow us around 24 hours a day, seven days a week, until the end of filming at an undisclosed date. It’s a feedback loop: so the narrator crafts the narrative, the essence embodies it. It’s a responsibility placed upon you to both talk and listen. But it goes even deeper than that.
It’s the narrator’s job to love your innermost essence, in order to prevent your essence becoming villainous. For if we can frame villainous behavior as a retaliation for not receiving love they deserve when they deserve it, then that means there’s value in telling your story in a loving, compassionate way. You’re giving yourself the ammunition you need to stop yourself from lashing out or backsliding into evil. (We’ll continue to discuss this buried thesis in subsequent inquiries.)
Think about it: If you were around someone 24 hours a day, seven days a week, until the end of your days, you would surely see things you found unsavory. What wouldn’t you want them to see? How wouldn’t you like your story told? Because that’s where we run into trouble. If the narrator is denied access to the darkness, then it can’t really love you. Our word for that, of course, is shame. And better to level up with the cameras now before the investigative journalists come knocking later.
The answer, as to whether or not you’re the hero or villain of your story, graciously, lies within you. You decide what gets shown, and you get to spin it however you like. You’re probably not interesting (I’m certainly not), but the narrator’s taking notes regardless, and that storyteller is just as much a part of you as yourself. So as long as what you’re showing is really you, and what you’re spinning is really true, and you’re up front with both the dark and the light, then you’ll be this much closer to becoming someone worth reading about, and worth pulling for. We have a word for people like that: heroes. And without stories, they don’t exist.